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Unfolding Silence

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Where is my soul? – a personal interfaith inquiry

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

I am not the only one feeling like that, I know, but fortunately the world is various and there are people who do not have problems in living fruitful lives with the certainty that there will not be any ‘after’.

Is my sadness a symptom of egoistic attachment to my own personality? Partly, I believe so. I am concerned, as many are, about the reason of such a struggle which is life: a chain of never-ending sufferings with a few moments of hope and joy which, in my debatable opinion, are not worth of compensating this unbalanced proportion between sorrow and happiness. Yet, I am still willing to be, to exist forever. Why? A part of me wants to believe that there is a way out from suffering which does not imply annihilation; that the purpose of life is happiness and fulfillment; that in this life or in the next one or somewhere beyond life, hidden in the depths of me, or in the depths of life, there is the peace I am looking for, waiting to be rescued or awakened.

Furthermore, I think my sadness is related to my attachment to my worldview, which has been shaped by my cultural background. I grew up in a Christian environment, where there is a very human conception of the soul: my soul is me, just without my body. This thought has given me comfort throughout many years. I was thinking that with the end of my body my pain will end and I will be happy forever.

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But my comfortable belief was challenged by the evidence that when our brain is malfunctioning, we may lose our identity, our character may drastically change and our memories may be totally erased. So, what is this part of me which is eternal? To which extent can I be attached to the hope that my personality, so strictly related to my body, will magically come back after my death? Furthermore, which personality I will have back? The personality I had when I was a child, or the one I had as an adult, or the last one I had, when I was old and maybe tired of living? Will I have the personality of January 7th at 10 p.m., or the personality I was manifesting a few hours later? Is it not true that we live many lives in one life-time and that our body too changes many times before we die? Of course, usually there are some traits in our temperament that do not have remarkable modifications, at least under normal circumstances, as well as our neurons do not change throughout all our life, yet the very concept of personality is so strictly related to the memories of our life-experiences, which are stored in our brain and body-cells, that if feels a bit unrealistic to hope that we will be the same persons after we abandon our body.

Unless…

The philosophy of Yoga preaches that our body is the grosser manifestation of subtler realities, such as the astral body and the causal body, and that we are destined to reincarnate till our soul will return to its origins, the source of life, or God, which is beyond the three realms. There we are safe, we are finally one with the whole. According to this theory, the physical body is not the source of our personality, but it is shaped by our karma, and, beyond that, by our soul: our personality and our body have certain characteristics because they are ultimately reflecting the uniqueness of our soul, but at the same time they are affected by the actions and thoughts cultivated in our past lives, which are still recorded in our astral and causal bodies.

I began to imagine the soul as the awareness beyond thoughts and emotions, beyond my personality: if I follow this theory the soul is an individual reflection of the Cosmic Consciousness. It will not cease to exist neither when I will attain the final union with the Supreme Being: something of me will remain forever, at least in the form of the memories of my past incarnations.

In a way, this theory sounded more scary than the Christian imaginary of Heaven, but it made sense because it was more flexible and it felt reasonable: in each life, you wear a new body and a slightly different personality, in which you may recognize some elements derived from the experiences of your previous lives; these experiences are alive in your subtler bodies but will still evolve and transform without destroying your uniqueness, which is, in the end, the direct expression of your individual soul.

I wanted to follow the truth, not my preferences in terms of belief, and the only parameter I have for deciding if something is true for me is to be honest with myself.

My search brought me to meet Buddhist philosophy, in which the concept of reincarnation is transformed into the idea of rebirth, where there is no need for any individual soul to explain our existence and no need for a Creator to justify Life. In Buddhism, your personality ends with the death of your body, yet, the dynamic energies you have moved and awakened throughout your life (your desires, your actions, your emotions), will create the conditions for an new birth to happen in order to manifest themselves through a new bodily vehicle and a new, temporary and flexible individual personality. The only way to definitely interrupt the cycle of rebirths, and therefore the suffering of life, is to attain the final liberation: this is possible by realizing, through meditation and direct subjective experience, the interdependence of all beings and the ultimate emptiness of reality. Even though there are some extreme nihilistic positions in Buddhist environment too, the main stream refuses the thought of non-existence of reality. Emptiness is not non-existence. Otherwise, how could a Buddhist explain that Buddha attained his final liberation after three days of meditation under a tree and then he continued to live and teach for many decades more? Shouldn’t he suddenly disappear and cease to exist?

But this last point opens a doubt: why then not to call ‘soul’ the energy and the awareness which abide in us behind our personality and which continue to generate new births? If it is true that it is possible to attain salvation, or enlightenment or liberation in this life, Buddhist should admit that the person who has been able to realize her emptiness still keeps a certain degree of individuality or specificity. When such a Buddha dies, is it then that everything vanishes? And how do you explain then the memories of your past lives? And why should you aim to be liberated, if you will cease to exist at the moment of your death and the next rebirth will be the problem of another impermanent and ultimately non-existing personality?

I agree with Buddha, that it is more important to focus on cultivating love and compassion and to work in order to overcome suffering rather that wasting time and energy in useless intellectual inquires about the meaning of life and what comes after death.

But the ultimate reason why I feel sad if I choose to believe that I will die together with my body is that such a definitive statement closes the research: there is no longer a ‘why?’ to be answered. Maybe this is true, I cannot deny it. It is possible that the spiritual and profoundly human question ‘why’ is a mistake of our species-evolution and that we should replace it with the more scientific ‘how’. Maybe neurology will definitely explain the previously mentioned phenomena of memories of past lives in a materialistic way. However, I would not jump so quickly to a negative answer.

Science is based on theories about the working of universe and life, which are grounded into objective observations and experiments that we may reproduce and check. Yet, only the specialists can understand the more subtle aspects of them, while the profanes will build an approximate and most likely inexact view on the phenomena.

Spiritual seeking, on the other hand, develops theories about the meaning of life through subjective observation, and such experiments may be reproduced only by individually following the same practices: again, the amateurs will understand only the surface of these theories, which may appear full of contradictions.

Traditional religions often provide very fancy theories about the origins of the universe, life and death, but they have developed tools for spiritual introspection which are valuable nowadays still, even though they may need some updating. Middle-Age science was fancy as well, if we compare it to contemporary science, yet some of its discoveries are still used by modern scientists. So, I believe my sadness towards a negative answer about the question of the soul is also motivated by my attachment to the truth: I cannot exclude that there is no soul, I cannot exclude that there is not an ultimate meaning, but I must not exclude the opposite possibility as well, to be honest, because a realistic approach to life does not necessarily mean a materialistic approach.

Such a non-choice is probably the most frightening position I have ever taken in my life, but it is undoubtedly the most honest and exciting: the truth is that I do not know, but it feels like an act of cowardice to give up with the question ‘why’ just because there may be no answer. I am a human, I ask myself: ‘why?’- and I am afraid there is no answer – but I get power from the creative and dynamic flow that this question generates. Without this question, there would be no art, no philosophy, no compassion.

Is this question coming from the depths of my soul or from my impermanent personality?

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

The thought that death may be my end, somehow, awakens my curiosity.

Hermits in Progress – twelfth retreat

 

Our twelfth and last Hermits in Progress retreat has been a surprise.

 

The day before the start we have been told that the place we had booked was no more available: we had twenty-four hours to find another location.

 

After a few hours of calls and e-mails we accepted the offer of a friend of a friend, who had an empty apartment of two-hundred squared meters in a small town close to Helsinki. There were no furniture and a lot of room. We chose the biggest room for the meditations and for the movement improvisations, then each of us spread in the house and chose a spot for sleeping. I found a suggestive space downstairs, inside a closet, where the roof was so low that I could just sit or lie, and darkness was perfect. It reminded me the narrow caves in the renowned ‘Eremo delle Carceri’: the mountain where Saint Francis of Assisi and his Brothers used to have their hermitages.

 

We were nine participants.

 

 retreat 12 – October 2014 – empty house

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Throughout the retreat we observed silence and we followed a simple and flexible program, which provided two hours of meditation per day and a lot of time for free personal practices.

 

The personal practices could include: meditation, prayer, reading, moving, dancing, T’ai Chi, Yoga, drawing and any other silent practice facilitating concentration and awareness that responded to our needs and interests. The personal practices could be performed in solitude or sharing the same space with the other participants. Furthermore, we could choose to share the same practice with someone else, with mutual agreement. We were free to seek for isolation and to break the rules according to our intuitions of the moment.

 

After our first meditation, some of the participants wanted to practice T’ai Chi, so we had a one-hour session of collective training which felt extremely powerful and energizing, in the frame of silence. One of the participants was taking pictures. Another went out for a walk. After the T’ai Chi session, I spent some time alone reading a book that I would recommend to all spiritual seekers: the Imitation of Christ. This book, traditionally attributed to Thomas a Kempis, is a classic of the Christian literature of Middle Age which had the fortune to be welcomed in many other religious environments as well because of its grounded-to-earth approach to ascetic. Exception done, maybe, for its fourth chapter, which is more strictly related to Catholic specificities, the book provides a sort of ‘transversal’ language, human and simple, able to speak to people of different beliefs and ages.

 

Before dinner I still had a session of contact improvisation with another participant, which ended with a brief meditation in pair, looking into each other’s eyes. At the same time another small group of participants improvised funny silent experiments in the forest, such as climbing trees blind-folded or jumping in a circle onto dry bushes. I must confess that these ‘crazy’ artistic moments had a liberating effect in the context of our retreat: by alternating periods of introspection and concentration to periods of freedom and open awareness, the retreat had a breathing pulse, where inner work and self-expression, solitude and shared practices were balancing each other, avoiding the creation of an atmosphere of ‘fake holiness’, where seriousness combined with the automatic habit of smiling to each other could lock us inside a forced and non-honest mood.

 

After the evening meditation I entered my ‘cave’ in the closet and I had a hard night on a hard floor.

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On the following morning I meditated in the big room, where two participants were actually sleeping. The co-existence of sleep consciousness and meditative awareness in the same space felt fascinating, like a symbol representing the subtle boundary separating the sleeping humanity from its awakening through the experience of enlightenment.

 

I went out for a walk in the forest. As it usually happens when I start a period of introspection, this time as well I came soon to face my inner heaviness, my negative thoughts and emotions. I felt that the natural surrounding was able to receive my suffering.

 

Before the Hermits in Progress project had started, I decided to involve also the practice of Catholic Rosary in my research. But one year was passed already and I had not practiced it yet. I knew why I did not pray for such a long period: I had lost my faith and I will probably have religious certainties no longer. Spiritual theories become dogmas and therefore truths to the followers of a religion. But a ‘scientist’ of spiritual seeking unfortunately never forgets that theories are the imperfect and always relative attempting to give unity and understanding to the few objective phenomena we can really name as truths: we live, we die; we do not know what life and death are; we suffer and we look for happiness; we do not know the reason for all this and we do not know if there is any answer at all.

 

However, I had the intuition that meditation without prayer was missing something. Meditation helped me to know myself, to explore my mind and heart, to enter the depths of my center. But I still had the vivid memory of how praying and chanting had given me, in the past, the feeling of expressing myself from the depths of that center. Self-awareness and self-expression are nourishing each other like inhalation and exhalation in the act of breathing.

 

Within the structure of the Hermits in Progress research, this was my last chance for praying. After a half an hour of walking I met a small lake. Watching at the calm water, I took the Rosary out from my pocket. I had the impulse of praying, even though I did not know any more what or whom to pray and what prayer actually was.

 

Since it was Sunday, I chose to focus on the Catholic Mysteries of the Glory: the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven and the Coronation of Mary. Before praying the first series of ten ‘Ave Maria’, I meditated on the first topic: the Resurrection. I realized that I was overwhelmed by a desperate sensation of disbelief and I did not want to force myself into an act of worshiping which would insult my honesty towards myself.

 

Suddenly, I was surprised by a simple idea: I will pray the Rosary through my doubts! My prayer will share my inner debate with the Unknown. By doing that, I will express myself.

 

I looked at the mystery of the Resurrection with a new courage. It would be easy to take such a magical story literally, yet it seemed to me a very partisan and partial explanation for overcoming the human fear of death: by coming back to life, Jesus proved that death is not our end; furthermore in the Gospels we can find a few allusions to the resurrection of the bodies. Personally, I have no problems in accepting that Jesus resurrected. But I have no preconceptions either in interpreting the resurrection of the bodies as a symbol representing the renewing of our ‘inner temple’ of consciousness from unawareness to awareness. I cannot even exclude that the myth of the resurrection of Jesus was built by fanatic disciples: it is sufficient to look how easily the followers of modern gurus tend to create an aura of magic and to attribute miracles to their spiritual leaders. Furthermore, in our globalized era we have access to other reasonable theories elaborating the same topic, adding interesting nuances to the question of life after death, such as the theory of reincarnation, the law of karma, or the Buddhist concept of rebirth, which actually eliminates the idea of an individual soul.

 

Like in physics different theories can be regarded as aspects of the same underlying theory, I can imagine that in spiritual seeking as well different religious theories can be regarded as attempting to enlighten different aspects of the same question. Yet, while in science we have been able to imagine the unifying M-theory, which may be intended as a ‘family’ of different theories, in spiritual seeking the problem is still opened, since there are no objective phenomena we can observe and analyze in a third-person modality and we rely on our subjective experiences. Religious theories are therefore remarkably more fancy and affected by cultural traditions than scientific theories are, and this specificity is also the reason why religions are easily resonating in tune with our human hearts: with that I do not mean that science is better than religion or vice-versa, but that for spiritual theories we need a different treatment. I think that building a syncretic universal religion would correspond to creating an artificial universal language out of the many existing on our planet: it would flatten and kill the bio-diversity of our living human society which is a fundamental factor for its survival. That is why a pluralist approach to religion, which promotes coexistence and acceptance of all religious paths as equally valid, especially if it is grounded in subjective direct experience, sounds to me as a more reasonable tool for spiritual seeking.

 

And that is why sometimes I feel full of fear: I have no more solid truths on which I can build my worldview. I have only flexible directions. Without dogmas life looks unstable. But that is the price for being completely honest with myself. This path requires a lot of courage and there are moments when I feel I am lacking of it.

 

After this long and elaborated reflection, I finally started to recite the series of ‘Ave Maria’ without focusing on the literal meaning of the words of the prayer, but simply opening my doubts, thoughts and feeling to the Unknown. The prayer was a channel helping me to connect my deep heart with the trees around me, with the lake, with the birds, my fellow humans, the rest of the universe, the Life. The effect was calming and comforting. Probably the same consequence could happen with any other system of prayer, but it felt easier to use a method I had practiced for years.

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I came back to our hermitage and I still practiced some spinal-adjustment training on the floor, then the whole group gathered for the final meditation.

 

When we finally broke the silence, we understood that each of us had the precious opportunity to deal with important aspects of her/his life. The abundance of free time in the flexible retreat-structure allowed surprising discoveries, encounters and experiments to happen between and inside of us. It was intriguing to observe how easily we could shift from isolation to collective action and vice-versa. On myself, I could analyze and observe the regular waving of my emotions from discouragement to fun, from anger and frustration to enthusiasm and hope.

 

The thing I will always remember is that this has been the first time in my life that I participated to a retreat where silence was broken every now and then by sincere and full-hearted laughs!

Hermits in Progress – tenth retreat

 

Think of a small flower growing in the remotest spot on the top of a mountain. Nobody ever sees it. Nobody ever rejoices of its perfume. The flower receives nourishment from sun, rain, earth, and lives its own life in tune with the laws of nature, till it gets dry and dies. Why?

 

You can imagine, if you like, that the purpose of such a hidden beautiful life is giving joy to its own Creator. Or you may think the flower is a gift to the whole world, no matter where it is, since all beings are interdependent. If you believe in reincarnation, you could assume that the flower is in the best possible condition, according to its own karma, for its own evolution.

 

All these theories are great tools to win the feeling of powerlessness it may come when you question the meaning of life. Furthermore, they may help you to live fully and with hope, whether by offering you a direction, a goal, the feeling you are beloved, that you are not alone, or encouraging you to focus on the present moment.

 

Of course, you are free to decide that there is no meaning at all, and live happily as well.

 

We do not know if the flower feels alone or not. We do not know if solitude unavoidably carries on a feeling of loneliness or not. Whatever interpretation you may choose, one thing is sure: that flower lives its solitary life.

 

Same thing we could say about a hermit.

 

retreat 10 – June 2014 – sharing practices


Ten months had passed since we began our “Hermits in Progress” –research. It came the moment to gather together and find a way to share some of our discoveries.

 

Throughout the whole research-process we had opportunities to explore several ways of being hermit and we became aware of our own personal approaches. We could deepen and develop unique spiritual practices, fit for our own specific needs. Some of us attended morning prayers, some others had solitary sessions of sitting or dynamic meditation, Tai Chi, ballet-training… in the secret of our early mornings or in the late evenings.

 

Hidden from the rest of the world, every day little miracles happen: there are precious moments of intense awareness, beautiful simple actions through which we worship Life, which are bound to remain unseen. Or is it so?

 

We spent two days at Luova Kasvu (a beautiful retreat-place in the countryside, close to Espoo), sharing, showing or teaching one of our personal daily spiritual/artistic routines to other participants: our solitary flowers growing on the top of a mountain had the chance to be seen at least once, receiving respect, tenderness and love.

 

In between the sessions we observed silence.

Is there any purpose in creating a window through which you can watch at the “hidden flowers”? As an artist, I believe it is my duty to offer the audience a chance to become aware of their own undiscovered beauty. And that often happens whenever I gift something honest of me, when I offer the audience my own hidden flowers.

 

But the second question is: how can the hidden flower remain so pure when it is hidden no more? That was, indeed, our own challenge this time.

 

We decided to start our retreat by preparing lunch together. While eating, our spontaneous conversation naturally ended up to focus on the experience we had just begun. We realized that the retreat did not need any rigid structure, but it should maintain such a nature of spontaneity. After lunch, we found ourselves speechless: it was clear that words were needed no longer and that we would continue in silence. We gave ourselves one-hour-time to rest and think what kind of “hidden flower” we were willing to share.

 

I did not think, I just slept. After one hour, I went to the dance-hall and sat on the floor. Little by little we all gathered together. Without a word, we began to meditate. After another hour, without any common sign, we started to move: someone was stretching, some other was practicing yoga-asanas, I warmed up as I usually do, with the Chinese Pa Tuan Chin –exercises. That was an absolutely unpredicted solution to the challenge of sharing private practices maintaining the freshness of a spontaneous action. We were in the same space, aware of the rising up of a common, powerful dynamic energy, even though each of us was focused on her/his own personal practice.

 

Another hour passed, when one participant wrote that she was going to walk in the forest, looking for special herbs for our dinner. Some of us followed her in her trip. In the forest, we ended up to hug trees, practicing Ch’I Kung and improvising a dance choreography in slow motion, each of us following different needs and impulses.

When we came back I began to practice Tai Chi. Some of us joined the practice and followed my movements. Some others just watched. I felt the mutual trust was already so deep that I never had the feeling of “being on stage”. There was no separation of roles between observers and practitioners. After dinner, we meditated together throughout another hour. I went and sleep in a separate building, where I could be completely alone.

 

When I woke up in the morning, most of the participants were gathered in the dance-hall and moved. I just watched. It felt easy to observe without judgment. I think that we succeeded because we have been very attentive to preserve personal freedom throughout the whole retreat. Silence and shared meditation helped us to attune with each other. Mutual trust followed as a natural consequence.

 

Then we moved upstairs, we sat in front of a cross and we meditated in silence for one hour. Coming down from meditation, I found one of the participant in the dance-hall, in the midst of her daily ballet-warm up. She was focused in repeating simple and extremely difficult gestures. It was clear she had been repeating same actions throughout an entire life. The energy and concentration she was expressing reminded me the way I usually practice my Kung Fu –basics when I am alone.

 

And I understood that everything may become meditation. Even the simple ritual of washing your face in the morning, if performed with full awareness, no doubt: it is meditation!

 

The second day proceeded with a series of small, beautiful, unexpected events, including a touching duo of authentic movement under a flowering tree. We broke our silence during lunch. I realized that everything that happened there could be considered a performance. But nothing else happened but meditation, in a wide range of possible expressions.

 

I think this has been the first concrete hint about how to develop a performance out of our “Hermits in Progress” –research. Furthermore, the reason of such a performance became very clear to myself: encouraging the world to be aware of its secret beauty. Let us all take care of the hidden flowers which are everywhere, around and inside of us!

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